Reading “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family,” my mind kept conjuring images of the late and grossly underrated musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Sometimes, the idiosyncratic jazzman would perform compositions on which he played multiple wind instruments — at the same time. He would blow through two or more mouthpieces, his fingers coaxing out notes on tenor and soprano saxophones, and even homemade musical devices whose workings only he could decipher.
This was neither a stunt nor gimmick. At times, one instrument alone could not capture the depth of the story Kirk needed to convey.
There’s a similar cacophony of thought in Mitchell S. Jackson’s vibrant memoir of race, violence, family, and manhood, “Survival Math.” Mitchell recounts growing up hard and fast in Portland, Ore., and it’s a minefield from boyhood to adulthood. He shares his and his family’s stories through essays, historical reportage, letters, and poems called “centos,” crafted with lines from other poems or writings.
Jackson recognizes there is too much for one conventional form, and his various storytelling methods imbue the book with an unpredictable dexterity. It is sharp and unshrinking in depictions of his life, his relatives (blood kin and otherwise), and his Pacific Northwest hometown, which serves as both inescapable character and villain.
In February, a Portland police lieutenant came under scrutiny for hundreds of texts that revealed a seemingly chummy relationship between himself and the leader of a white nationalist group.
That story gained little national traction, probably because it was viewed as more momentary aberration than reiteration of history. Oregon has a reputation as a liberal bastion, the kind of place where officials recently made the state the nation’s first to cap how much landlords can raise rents. But Jackson knows his home state has long been openly hostile toward black people. (In the ’20s, for instance, Klan much?)
Jackson launches his book with a letter to “the first of us to set foot on the land that became the state where I was born.” It’s not a long dead ancestor. He’s addressing Markus Lopeus, believed to be the first person of African descent to arrive (and soon after be killed) in what would become Oregon. What he shares is a review of hisstate’s torchlight procession of hate, capped with his own harrowing personal memories of black persistence met with white resistance.
He tells Marcus about “good, good times” in clubs boasting of “wall-to-wall soul.” And he quickly adds, “[b]ut since there ain’t never been such a thing as celebration enough to null our plight, we rioted in ’67, set firebombs in ’69. The riots nor the bombs posed a problem of much significance to those in power, since in the scheme and scope of this city, this state, we — deemed negroes at the time — have never amounted to much beyond a noisome political presence.”
Those riots and bombs exploded years before Jackson was born, but the conditions that sparked the unrest — poverty, police violence, oppression — remained prevalent throughout his difficult childhood.
One device Jackson uses to great effect are what he calls “survivor files,” interviews with men in his family detailing their experiences with gangs, infidelity, and incarceration. He never identifies them by name, and though there are photos, he never links them to a particular story. That anonymity makes their recollections broader and more universal. It’s Jackson’s history, but it’s also a microcosm of too many black men struggling both against their worst instincts, and a society that often leaves them with too few alternatives.
Despite all this, I won’t call Jackson’s family dysfunctional. It’s a tired, reductive label — plus all families are dysfunctional in their own way. The only difference is whether they have the capacity and resources to correct, or at least, deal constructively with the dysfunction. This is what Jackson does in one of the book’s most affecting chapters called “Composite Pops.”
His biological father, he writes, “was absentee from day one through my tenth birthday.” Yet he did not want for guiding men in his life.
“Boys need fathers — period, exclamation point. And if a boy isn’t blessed with a dad or gifted with a dynamic stand-in, he must find ways to forge one,” Jackson writes. “He must discern the fatherish men in his life and open himself to their guidance and examples.’’
That’s what Jackson did, especially with his mother’s longtime boyfriend, a man he identifies as “Big Chris.” Though a convicted bank robber, Chris was “smart, witty, and compassionate.” Even after Chris and Jackson’s mother split up after many years, he remained in Jackson’s life as “the one who showed me the value and impact of a father’s love, that family had nothing to do with DNA.’’
This is just one equation in Jackson’s own “survival math,” the calculations crucial to his existence as a black man. Anyone who belongs to a historically marginalized group understands this, and those computations start the moment you wake and continues until your eyes close at night. It’s the adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying of ourselves that allow us to exist in various environments. Our lives depend on finding the right solution. Too many do not.
When he writes of the choices — “Freedom or bondage. Harm or health. Life and death” — he’s speaking of the Crips-and Bloods street gangs, but I heard these more generally as the choices that face many young (and not-so-young) African Americans. Now an acclaimed author, Jackson would seem to have made all the right choices. His virtuosic wail of a book reminds us that for a black person in America, it can never be that easy.
Notes on an All-American Family
By Mitchell S. Jackson
Scribner, 315 pp., $26
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Renée Graham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.